By John Huston
Two weeks ago, who’d have guessed that Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki would be this year’s Ladies’ Singles finalists at Wimbledon? Not me, nor any of ESPN’s panel of experts. Tennis was caught up in the verbal sparring of superstars and French Open finalists Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, to the degree that the rest of the WTA scarcely existed. But if nothing else, this year’s Championships has opened people’s eyes to the fact that tennis is about more than just mega-marketable icons, and competitive sport—thankfully—doesn’t always follow the script.
Though Bartoli and Lisicki are united as surprise finalists, their paths to the tournament’s ultimate face-off couldn’t be more different. The eccentric Bartoli is partly known for her formidable IQ, but it didn’t take an Einstein to recognize, as she did last Wednesday, that the bottom half of the draw was open season once Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka were out. She promptly seized the opportunity with a vengeance, blitzing through a series of lower-ranked opponents without dropping a set.
Bartoli’s toughest challenge came in the quarters, from still-green Sloane Stephens, the last American left standing, who must have been kicking herself if she watched the first of today’s semifinals. Yet another unlikely late-stage contender in the all-Euro Slam virgin semifinal lineup, Kirsten Flipkens offered comparatively little resistance, going down 6-1, 6-2 in just over an hour. With flat-hitting aggression and pinpoint accuracy, Bartoli took the court away from the Belgian from the get-go, delivering a nearly flawless performance. Flipkens’ slice backhand may be smooth “like butter,” but it only made target practice tastier for the eccentric Frenchwoman and 2007 finalist, who once again drew upon her experience to play confidently—in fact, Bartoli came into the match so relaxed that she’d napped until a half-hour before match time.
In contrast to Bartoli’s smooth, straight-set sailing, Sabine Lisicki’s path to the final has been an epic roller coaster defined by peak moments against the game’s top players. Never before known for her mental resilience, Lisicki has now snatched victory from the jaws of defeat not once but twice, taking down both of last year’s Wimbledon finalists in the process. In the fourth round, she rebounded from an 0-3 third-set deficit against the seemingly invincible Serena Williams by doing the unthinkable—outserving and outhitting Serena, capping it all by storming the forecourt to deliver a forehand winner on match point.
Today, Lisicki faced a very different opponent, the crafty Agnieszka Radwanska, and many experts waited for her game to unravel in the face of the Pole’s consistency, resilience, and instinctively clever point construction. Unravel it did—during the middle stretch of the match, just as against Williams, Lisicki lost numerous games in a row, finding herself 0-3 down in the final set yet again. But she called upon her immense serve and mammoth forehand to turn the momentum back in her favor. Sweating and smiling in the afternoon sun, she drew even with her ice-cool, poker-faced opponent, then served out the match on her second attempt for a 6-4, 2-6, 9-7 victory. For Radwanska, the sting of a missed opportunity was obvious: she offered her friend and compatriot (though raised in Germany, Lisicki has Polish roots) what will go down as one of the more high profile recent “handshake fails” of the drama-filled WTA tour, and broke with All England Club custom by departing from the court immediately.
So here we have it: an early Saturday date with Marion Bartoli and Sabine Lisicki, the last two women to have defeated Serena Williams at Wimbledon. (Another bit of trivia: This is the second time that Bartoli is facing the 23rd seed in the final, as Venus Williams also had that seeding in 2007.) Television networks can’t be jubilant—it’s telling that ESPN opened a promo segment on Bartoli today with the phrase, “She’s quirky, but…” True tennis fans, however, have a matchup to savor: these players are grass court stalwarts with contrasting games, and more variety than might first seem apparent. Bartoli floated some deadly lobs against Flipkens today, and was ruthlessly efficient at net, while Lisicki outwitted Radwanska at some key moments in their epic battle, turning the tide with a graceful drop shot and backhand lob volley combo in the third set.
On top of this, both of these players are true characters—look no further than the bizarre, Pilates-ready pose that Bartoli struck upon defeating Flipkens, surely one of the most unusual victory celebrations in recent memory. Neither Bartoli nor the heart-on-sleeve Lisicki conform to the loud alpha female archetype that has dominated the WTA for well over a decade, nor are they shrinking violets. Bartoli’s high IQ provided some comic relief in a post-match ESPN studio interview, when the network tried to stump her with the Fibonacci sequence and she rattled off a response with dismissive ease, claiming “even Brad [Gilbert, who affectionately calls her “The Genius”]” would have been able to answer correctly.
Lisicki is the tournament’s Cinderella story. No longer a young player on tour, she’s been known for her emotional vulnerability as much as her powerful game—many times in the past, she’s wept on court when dealing with injury or poor performances. One of the most remarkable aspects of her terrific run at this year’s Wimbledon is the fact she hasn’t fundamentally altered her personality—rather than adopting a Teflon exterior, she’s been emotionally forthcoming from start to finish, finding humor in the lighter moments of her difficult matches and letting loose spontaneous tears of happiness after her wins over Williams and Radwanska. What we’re seeing, at least for now, is a player’s transformation. What once was a weakness now seems to be an asset.
This year’s Wimbledon Ladies’ final may not have marquee names, but it promises some quality tennis with no shortage of back stories and colorful detail, from Lisicki’s up-and-down injury-plagued career and amazing Wimbledon results against reigning French Open champs, to Bartoli’s seemingly endless grab bag of oddball between-point battle habits—which make even Rafael Nadal’s seem tame—and her independent journey from daddy-driven unorthodox outcast into pride and joy of the French Tennis Federation. A final wrinkle to this already-layered story: while Bartoli must be happy that she isn’t facing Radwanska, who remains 7-0 against her, she also has a losing record against the lower-ranked, less seasoned Lisicki. We’re unlikely to witness a blowout on Saturday. In fact, this year’s final—like the whole tournament that has preceded it—is almost wholly unpredictable. And that’s about as refreshing as fresh strawberries and cream.